Category Archives: 3.1 Observing the human figure

3.1.1 drawing the human figure

I had planned to ask a neighbour to pose for me clothed – she did a great job for me during Drawing 1.  The timing didn’t work out though, and I started to think about drawing myself;  there seemed to be distinct advantages – I was always available; would pose as long as I needed; didn’t have to pay myself; didn’t have to worrying about the need to flatter; and I was the only person I knew who would pose nude for me.


I could find very few precedents of self portraits of the nude figure by female artists, and none before 20c.  Those I did find were quite inspiring:- (Addendum – many weeks later I found nude self portraits by Louise Courtnell and Anna Dougherty in my 500 Portraits book of the BP Portrait Award.  I’ve also looked at the powerful self portraits of Jenny Saville since writing this log)

As far as I could establish Paula Modersohn Becker was the first.  For this 1906 painting she must have posed and then drawn and painted from memory (she isn’t shown in the act of painting), something I found extraordinarily difficult when I tried it, and maybe should make a point of practising.  In this work, the figure has been painted onto a fairly flat mid tone background – the delicate outlines of the figure do seem to almost float, giving a soft and romantic look.   The focal point is the facial expression because it’s well defined in terms of colour, line and contrast.  



In her 80s Alice Dean painted a very frank depiction of her own figure sitting in a striped chair. 

Gesture, posture, assured draftsmanship, and an eye for color are at the heart of her interpretive skills.”  “Her full-length form seated before the easel recalls the centuries-old tradition of artists painting themselves. At the same time, her self-portrait ignores convention by virtue of the fact that Neel is nude. Her nakedness serves as a metaphor for her candor. The angle of the small sofa on which she sits and her upraised foot suggest some tension in the moment, despite the artist’s calm facial demeanor. Neel’s unflinching realism captures a body that does not conform to notions of feminine beauty—her breasts sag, her thighs are ample, and her distended stomach has lost its tone. Her self does not escape the same clinical analysis that she gave to others. Without apology, she presents herself as a woman who takes pride in her role as an artist, and she declares that talent and character, not transient beauty, make one interesting.”

In this painting, bold lines describing shape and volume have been retained.  The figure and other large areas have been painted in fairly simple blocked areas of intense colour.  Simple outlines and shapes allow the linear aspect to dominate.  The background context has hardly been realised.  The focal point is the face again, my eye is continually drawn back to that startling red complexion and pursed lips.


The theme was taken up by the contemporary artist Chantal Joffe, who nods to Alice Neel in her title “Self portrait sitting on a striped chaise long).  The painting is  “a direct reference to Neel’s influence in its nudity, composition and evocative expression”.

The cast shadows within and under the face and on the right arm are quite boldly coloured.  In Joffe’s portray we are really concentrating on the contours of her figure, and it’s weight revealed by the contours of the striped cushion.


The main disadvantage I found was the distinct lack of available poses I could hold comfortably and still see while drawing, especially juggling with two mirrors.  The first pose was the most comfortable and I took my time measuring and checking proportions, lines and shapes over and over again.

With a little more articulation of the background a greater sense of the figure in space could be achieved. Somehow I look to be a bit of a giant – daddy bear sitting in goldilocks’ studio!

The next pose was most uncomfortable to maintain whilst drawing, and my view of the figure via two mirrors a little lacking in detail. I gave up quite quickly – can’t imagine doing a complete painting in this position!  But I quite like the look of the pose, and will see if I can take a selfie using a timer, to paint from.


My third drawing went back to the first pose, viewed in the mirror from a different angle.

Ive indicated more context, an archway framing the figure, a flue seen through the archway on the far wall; a picture hanging on the nearer wall and a rug on the floor in front of the figure.  The figure is very much influenced by Alice Neel.  I like how the position of my legs is repeated in the legs of the tripod and the angles made by the drawing tools I’m holding.  There’s tension in the way my foot is angled and the tipping back of the chair.  This is my winner – to be taken forward to the next exercise.




3.1.2 linear figure study – self portrait

Enlarging and reproducing the main lines of the graphite study done in the previous exercise was quick and easy using a pentagram, and I then painted the lines of the composition with very dilute process blue.


I did some trials in my sketchbook with pre-mixed colours for flesh tones based on Naples Yellow Red Light made a range from warm to cold, light to dark, then painted the figure quickly and simply with my mixes left over from those experiments.

The figure is going to be very light in tone surrounded by the dark area through the archway, mid tone floor and lighter wall on the right  Wanted to create a warm feel.  Have looked at Rufino Tamayo‘s use of colour and texture.  Experimented with mixing orange, yellow and brown.  Burnt umber for the dark tones, cad yellow and orange for a goldish light tone for the wall; cad yellow and yellow ochre for midtone floor.  I want texture to give a feeling of softness and depth, so will build up a few layered washes, blotting darker colour off to show lighter layers underneath. I tried dropping alcohol in to wet paint for texture but it seems the main use of that is to create rather large rings or circles.  I could spatter or dry-brush paint on instead of removing it.

Work in progress gallery:


The background was washed in very loosely with liquid mixtures of burnt umber, cadmium yellow and red, and allowed to drip, run and merge.  Then I drew the figure with the brush using cad red and indigo, and added broad areas of tone, resisting the urge to add detail and precision.

I liked how the washes merged and ran, like watercolour; and how I was able to layer colours to add tone.

The painting stayed at this stage for a week while I pondered my next step.  The figure I felt was done, but I wanted to improve the surroundings somehow, feeling the colours were too bright and simplistic, not quite knowing how to add texture and a bit of subtlety. I played with InspirePro and iPad, using the dry-brush tool to transform my bright background colours into tertiary colours, darkening the far wall and floor until they seemed to merge, lightening the foreground to show the light from the right shining on the figure.  It looked good, and so I translated what I’d done on to my canvas, dry-brushing burnt umber, sap green, Naples yellow and white over my background.  I feel the painting now has more depth and that the figure sits in a real space.   My dry-brushing skills need practising though – there’s a fine line between muting and dirtying colours which I didn’t quite manage to tread!

 I’ve learned a lot from this exercise, and enjoyed the approach to drawing a figure with the brush and making loose, runny washes in acrylic.  However I am asking myself if it’s really a good process for me to copy my drawings into my paintings, to draw in outline and then try to organise my composition to fill in.  The composition doesn’t work particularly well, and I  feel a lot of ‘creative me’ is lost in that process, and ‘careful me’ takes over.


Here’s the final painting.  Looking back some weeks later I feel it’s only half resolved.  I think I became dispirited; like any painting it was a struggle, and on top of that I was feeling self- conscious and slightly cold!  I’d like to go back into it one day and work it into a more resolved piece.  However, the studio is now very cold, so it’ll have to wait!


3.1.2 linear figure study – painting with scissors

Before starting on the painted version of the linear study from the previous exercise I took a diversion for fun, and embarked on what I thought would be a quick sketchbook experiment –  a painted collage of a seated figure which I drew from a magazine photo.  I was venturing into the unknown not having much experience of collage, and had to scrap the first attempt on A2 brown paper, which buckled hopelessly as I tried to glue a background into it.  Using a block of watercolour paper as my base was much more successful – with acrylic medium I was able to collage torn rectangles of acrylic painted cheap paper on to form my background.

My line drawing of the figure in graphite on cartridge paper was cut into ten main shapes, which I then painted and applied to the background.  Finally I added some ink lines to define the shoulders and to demarcate the background here and there.  It sounds quick but in fact took ages as I used trial and error to solve how to make the image I wanted.


I’m pleased with the outcome (it’s a bit Patrick Caulfield-esque; I loved that exercise in Drawing 1, it appealed to my penchant for measuring, counting and accuracy)!  It has some good negative shapes where the head and feet cut across the borders.  The closely related colours of the background and the figure work – she’s not lost in the background because the few simple lines and shapes are enough to enable the viewer to ‘read’ the pose and gesture.  The complementary dress colours lift the painting, and are picked out in the background too.  I’m not sure it’s a ‘proper’ painting though – I’ve adopted ideas from my source inspiration but i feel I haven’t added enough of my own creativity and voice –  but in any case it’s been a good study for improving technique and exploring new ways of thinking about colour.

Reference / inspiration – Richard Diebenkorn, Yellow Collage, 1966

3.1.3 tonal figure study -1st session

For this exercise I engaged a model to sit for me in my studio.  We started with a few 5-10 minute seated poses, which I drew with willow charcoal on brown paper, setting a timer to keep the pace  up and discourage detail.


The video ‘Paint like Degas’ by Damian Callan ( gives a tutorial on drawing a portrait with charcoal on tracing paper.  You start by laying a sheet of cream coloured paper under the tracing paper, and, holding a long stick of willow charcoal by its end, drawing a continuous line around and within the whole figure, with a light touch. In this way you keep exploring the subject, searching for the lines, until an image starts to form, then using a shorter stick of charcoal, you continue, but pressing a little harder.  Next you start to add tone by hatching, smudging and lifting with a putty eraser.  Then draw with a sharp edge of a silicon eraser.  Spray with fixative, then continue investigating darks and lights, using compressed charcoal and white chalk.


I really enjoyed the method, which allows a gradually deepening exploration of the subject without worrying about getting lines wrong; the feel of the charcoal on the tracing paper is velvety smooth with no scratchiness.  Comment from husband “very good – natural, not laboured or stilted”.  I like how the lines and scribbles from the contour drawing still show, and give a feeling of movement.  I’m pleased with how the lights and darks describe volume, and I will make more subtle grading between the two next time.  

Comparing the photo to the  drawing, which was done over an hour in short sessions, is revealing.  I like the twist in the photo, the lean to her right, and the upwards, sideways tilt to the head.  My main aim would be to capture those gestural aspects more in the next study.

3.1.3 tonal figure study – 2nd session

This video  demonstrates another charcoal technique, one that starts by lightly drawing the main lines then establishing four values – black, white, mid-light (provided by the paper) and mid-dark.  These tones are laid in rapidly, in abstract fashion, then modified using various erasing tools (kneadable eraser, q-tip, chamois) and black and white charcoal pencils.  The mid-dark tone was produced by rubbing black with the chamois.

Applying this to my figure drawing, I analysed my subject and the background in terms of these four tones before starting to draw on the textured cream-coloured paper, which I’d prepared with an overall midtone tinted charcoal.  I spent 30minutes on this study, drawing without measuring, and by putting the photo and the drawing side by side it’s easy to see where ive distorted the proportions.  The tones are working reasonably well, though I haven’t quite captured the full effect of the light shining on the front of the model…the top of the back could be darker to show the curve of the shoulder…left leg is too light…the floor could be half a tone darker to differentiate it from the wall.


The next study was done on similar paper prepared with midtone charcoal.  Although I spent a similar amount of time on it it’s a bit less complete than the previous study, but I feel the proportions are more accurate.


I’ve done several studies now, concentrating on understanding the tonal relationships, and I’m ready to start my painting in the next session.  The seated pose above appeals to me most. I like the pose, the light, and my interpretation with thinned and elongated proportions and a semi-abstract background of blocks of tone.

Researching Odilon Redon and his pastel paintings I’m keen to try some of his methods in my painting.  He would start by making a completely worked out tonal charcoal drawing, and then add soft pastel, layer upon layer, fixing the work at intermittent stages.  I talk about his techniques more  in my Drawing 1 blog here.

3.1.3 tonal figure painting

So I started by sitting my model facing a sunny window and making a tonal drawing in charcoal (various types, and using a range of adding and subtracting methods) on a textured 50×70 support, which I had reduced with masking tape to 40x60cm.  In the gallery of intermediate stages below, the first photo shows how I was so dissatisfied with the head that I completely altered the set of the head on the shoulders.  In the second photo I had also corrected the placement of the back and legs quite significantly.  By the third photo, with background and highlights added and the charcoal fixed, I was ready to begin adding soft pastel colour.  (The fourth photo is a layered amalgam of my charcoal drawing and a reference photo of the pose, which I set at 50% transparency using Sketchbook Pro.  I include it because I felt I had discovered by accident another approach to combining the two media of charcoal and soft pastel in separate, fixed layers, creating a sort of ‘lost and found’ feel, or a retaining of the drawing’s pentimenti.  Something to be explored later in my sketchbooks).


This painting by Helen Lessore (below, left) greatly appeals to me for the atmosphere, the light bathing the face and figure, and the tonal character of the limited pallete.  The influence of Sickert and the Camden Town group can be seen in the subdued painterly style.  The flesh tones and modelling are very convincing.  I particularly like the area of the right thigh, the joint with the hip is brilliantly done.  At the same time she has taken artistic license – proportions are elongated; and I found it an impossible pose to adopt, twisting and displaying the rounded upper back to such an extent while the arm hangs straight down.  But the effect is to emphasise the rather meditative, sad atmosphere.  I also like the face, which is very fine and sweet.


For the third session on this exercise my model defaulted!  I decided to carry on without her using my reference photos.  Having the tones worked out in the charcoal study made adding colour faster and more accurate tonally, especially as I was using a limited palette.

Work in progress

At this late stage I discovered a basic, glaring error in my drawing – the model’s legs were angled away from me and foreshortened, and I’d drawn them as though she was sitting square in the chair – hence they look extremely short in the painting. I needed to alter the angle of the feet and remodel the forms of the legs, after which I fixed the pastel ready to refine the profile of the face and highlights.  Below is the final painting.  The legs now look ok, by dint of altering the shape of the knee, modelling the Achilles’ tendon, and pivoting the feet away. 

Below is the final painting.


 This painting, done over three sessions, has certainly been a struggle as I was determined to keep looking critically at the proportions and get them right, and I think I’ve succeeded in that at last. The other thing that bugged me throughout was the face, which until the very end looked coarse and ugly, and I finally made the nose and lips smaller and achieved a better representation.

I am pleased with the background and floor.  To me it looks more believable and to have more depth than I’ve managed in previous paintings.  I used the layered photo image as a reference, and this helped me simplify and modulate the abstract shapes of the background context so they were representative but not too hard edged.

 The figure appears as a solid firm existing in space.  Although I went wrong in the early stages with locating the legs correctly in space, I’ve gained a better understanding of the main tonal relationships and how light falls across the figure.